transcendentalist painting


Fifty years before van Gogh began doing his night paintings, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in the opening chapter of Nature: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown!”

The brilliance of the MoMA exhibit, which has been organized with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (where it will go after it closes in New York on January 5), is that it captures what Emerson regarded as the miraculous, letting us see how van Gogh’s painting technique evolved over the course of the 1880s.

Van Gogh’s fascination with the night began with his “Twilight, Old Farmhouses in Loosduinen” (1883) and “Lane of Poplars at Sunset,” painted a few months later in 1884. The flat brushwork in these paintings is unremarkable, but the orange sun nearing the horizon in “Lane of Poplars at Sunset” hints at the change about to come in van Gogh’s work. A year later in “The Potato Eaters,” the direction in which van Gogh was headed becomes evident and so, too, does the fact that he was in the process of changing the sentimental approach to rural life that was so central to such French paintings as Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Sower” and Jules Breton’s “The Feast of St. John.”

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